Free Russia Foundation: a Year in Review
In May 2015, a report titled “Putin. War” was launched in Moscow, detailing the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and direct involvement in the military conflict in Donbass. The work on this report had been originally initiated by Boris Nemtsov, a charismatic leader of the Russian opposition, who tragically assassinated in the center of Moscow before he could finish it. His allies, including politician Ilya Yashin, who has been recently sentenced to a lengthy prison term in a clear case of political persecution, completed the report. Its preamble is a powerful call to action: “We should mass-print this report and give it out on the streets. Let us tell the Russian people how Putin started this war.”
The war. Since 2014, this menacing word has been encroaching, like a dark cloud, on European skies, until it finally exploded in 2022, raining down on Ukraine with thousands of rockets, destroying cities, killing and wounding civilians, sending millions of refugees away from home. February 24, 2022—the day the Kremlin began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine—has divided the life of millions into before and after.
The past year has been life-changing for many. Last December, few could have imagined that the Donbass conflict would turn into an all-out war in the heart of Europe, precipitating humanitarian, energy, and other crises of global scale. With the onset of war, in Russia, we have seen a disturbing deterioration of state institutions, a massive wave of repression against dissidents, an imposition of military censorship, an increasingly unhinged propaganda, and a dramatic exodus of the Russians who opposed the war. The main challenge—the crisis of confidence—has emerged against the backdrop of Russia’s blatant violation of international treaties, norms, and human decency, but has not reached its peak yet. This war has also exposed flaws and failures that we all, as humankind, will be confronting for years to come.
Since its inception in 2014, Free Russia Foundation has been setting off alarms about the Kremlin’s growing aggression that threatens not only Russian citizens, but the entire world. On February 24, 2022, we strongly condemned Russian authorities’ criminal decision to launch an unprovoked, aggressive war against sovereign Ukraine. Russia’s forceful seizure of another country’s territory, its war crimes, and nuclear blackmail cannot be justified under any circumstances.
The invasion of Ukraine was shocking, painful, and profoundly traumatic for all of us. Yet, instead of incapacitating us, it strengthened our resolve, giving us new energy and purpose. Ending the war and alleviating the suffering it has unleashed became our focus. Since day one of the war, we have been campaigning to tell the truth about Putin’s war in Ukraine to the Russian people, spearheading efforts to free Ukrainian citizens taken hostage by the Kremlin, and assisting Russian activists, journalists, and politicians in exile so that they could continue their pro-democracy and anti-war efforts.
Helping Ukrainians brutalized by the war has been our priority. FRF has organized over 60 evacuation missions from the war zones in Kyiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhya, Kramatorsk, and others, taking to safety thousands of people—and their pets. We purchased medical equipment for Ukrainians in need, sending from the U.S. 200 tactical turnstiles (CAT), 70 equipped first-aid kits (IFAK), 70 anti-burn stickers, 70 breathing tubes; from Israel 105 emergency bandages, 110 anti-blood patches, 50 hemostatic bandages; from Turkey 80 walkie-talkies, and from Poland over 200 sleeping bags. We were sending tourniquets and drones to Ukraine.
On June 12, Free Russia Foundation coordinated anti-war rallies in 80 cities across 37 countries, striving to amplify Russians’ anti-war voices, show activists inside Russia that they are not alone, that there is international support for their fight, and counter the Kremlin propaganda’s claim that all Russians approve of the war.
On June 16, the Foundation launched an international campaign—#NOTOWAR / #НЕТВОЙНЕ—to unite voices of the Russian speakers around the world and help stop the war. In the wake of the Kremlin’s suppression of domestic dissent, this campaign calls on Russian diasporas and Russians in exile to speak out against the war—including on behalf of those Russians who, for objective reasons, cannot openly express their views. Through protests, information campaigns, and human rights activities, we pressure Russian authorities to withdraw troops from Ukraine, demonstrating the presence of a global anti-war Russian-speaking community. Our campaign includes both expert analyses and stories of ordinary Russians who have been affected by the war.
In September, the announced partial mobilization in Russia triggered a second wave of emigration. According to some estimates, between 150,000 and 1,500,000 citizens left the country—potentially amounting to the largest exodus in Russia’s recent history. Due to the drastic nature of this emigration wave, many Russians faced serious challenges along the way—from visa issues to financial hardships to acute emotional and psychological crises. FRF addressed this situation by providing legal and counseling support as well as drawing attention of European officials, diplomats, and journalists to these issues. Our legal aid program reached over 600 citizens of Russia and over 500 residents of Belarus. We helped several ethnic minority groups to evacuate thousands of people to Kazakhstan and Mongolia.
In the second half of 2022, Free Russia Foundation opened Resource Centers throughout Europe—in Berlin, Tallinn, Vilnius, and Tbilisi. These are public spaces where exiled anti-war Russian activists as well as Ukrainian activists working on humanitarian projects can get much needed assistance. Resource Centers offer legal aid and counseling, hold discussions, and organize anti-war events. We hope that these spaces will help build a strong global community committed to promoting democratic values, advancing peace, and facilitating political change in Russia.
The persecution of Vladimir Kara-Murza, our former colleague (until August 2021) and Russia’s prominent politician and human rights activist, has been another unhappy development in 2022. Vladimir was detained in April in front of his apartment building in Moscow. At first, he was charged with an administrative offense—for allegedly disobeying police orders. Criminal charges were consequently added to his case. Vladimir was accused of disseminating false information about the Russian military (this charge referred to his March 15 speech at the Arizona House of Representatives, in which he said that the Putin regime “is dropping bombs on residential areas, hospitals and schools” in Ukraine). Next, he was charged with collaboration with an “undesirable organization” on the account of his organizing a roundtable in support of political prisoners at the Sakharov Center in Moscow in October of 2021.
Finally, in October, an additional criminal charge was brought against Kara-Murza — high treason. This accusation is based on three public speeches he had given abroad, including one in which Vladimir had said that Russia was persecuting political opposition and introducing total censorship. The charge of high treason for public speaking is a cynical cover for the Putin regime’s persecution of the freedom of speech. This high-profile political case is clearly designed to fully silence Russia’s pro-democracy movement.
In response to these outrageous attacks on Vladimir, Free Russia Foundation has launched a global campaign calling for his release. Hundreds of media outlets around the world covered his case. Human rights organizations, U.S. and European politicians, Russian opposition leaders and international opinion leaders issued statements in Vladimir’s support, condemning his political persecution.
This campaign has been spearheaded by his wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, who became FRF’s Director for Advocacy in 2022. Evgenia has spoken in support of Vladimir and all Russia’s political prisoners at hundreds of meetings with stake holders and opinion leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Her speeches were heard at forums and conferences in the U.S. and Europe and in the interviews with CNN, BBC, The Washington Post, Deutsche Welle, Voice of America, and many others. Public and political figures, such as Steven Cohen, William Browder, Irvin Cotler, Tom Malinowski, Roger Wicker, Robert Menendez, Michael McFaul, Ben Cardin, Marco Rubio, Dick Durbin, Vladimir Milov, Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Lyubov Sobol, Sergey Aleksashenko, and many others joined the fight for Vladimir’s freedom. A group of the U.S. senators made a joint appeal to President Joe Biden, calling for action, under the Magnitsky Act, against those responsible for Vladimir Kara-Murza’s persecution.
Despite Vladimir’s arrest, decades of his anti-war and pro-democracy work have not been disrupted. He continues to write and share his work with the world through his lawyer. His resilience is truly inspiring. In recognition of his efforts, Vladimir has been the recipient of several international prizes and awards. In October, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) announced that its most prestigious award, the Václav Havel Prize for Human Rights, would be given to Vladimir. In November, the Geneva-based UN Watch also awarded him with its highest prize — the Morris B. Abram Human Rights Award. Vladimir dedicated this award to the thousands of people who had been arrested or detained in Russia for protesting Putin’s war in Ukraine.
This year, our team welcomed a prominent Russian pro-democracy politician, Vladimir Milov, as Vice President for International Advocacy. Vladimir is a recognized opposition leader, member of Alexey Navalny’s team as well as an economist and energy expert. Under Vladimir’s leadership, FRF continues combating autocracy and repression in Russia and countering aggression that the Putin regime unleashed on Ukraine and Belarus. Vladimir Milov is well-known for his unequivocal anti-war stance. In April 2021, he left Russia for Lithuania following persecution of Navalny’s organizations. In February 2022, he categorically condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On May 6, 2022, Russia’s Ministry of Justice added the politician to its blacklist of “foreign agents.” Milov is a regular guest on CNN and CNBC, and is often cited by The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal.
This year Vladimir Milov published several important papers: “The EU’s Relations With a Future Democratic Russia: A Strategy”, “Beyond the Headlines: The Real Impact of Western Sanctions on Russia”, “Yes, It Hurts: Measuring the Effects of Western Sanctions Against Russia”. A series of his articles were also written for FRF and published on the Foundation’s website, among them — “What is the Russian Public Opinion regarding Putin’s war against Ukraine?”, “Saying “Nothing Will Ever Change in Russia” is not Only Unhelpful, It is Wrong”, “Russian Society is in the Midst of a Profound Transformation not Captured by Traditional Opinion Polls”.
Free Russia Foundation continues to integrate the insights acquired through our “field” work into studies and reports. This year, we have released the following reports: “Russian Emigrants: The Cost of Freedom,” “The Russian Economy and Sanctions: Who’s Who?”, “A Case for Supporting Free Democratic Russia,” “Russia-Turkey Relations in the Context of War in Ukraine,” “Yandex — the Kremlin’s Weapon Against Democracy,” “Decolonization in Real Time: Why the World Should Support Russians Running from Mobilization.” We have also penned profiles of political prisoners in Russia. Hundreds of posts on our social media accounts have focused on exposing the truth about the war in Ukraine, repression and censorship in Russia, highlighting the activities of the anti-war movement in Russia and the work of the Foundation.
In early December, our organization celebrated its eighth anniversary. Back in 2014, Free Russia Foundation first announced itself to the world as a group of activists supporting civil society and democratic development in Russia. In just a few years, we have grown into a powerful global movement uniting hundreds of talented professionals—civil society activists, human rights advocates, entrepreneurs, scholars, politicians, and journalists. What unites us is the vision that a free and peaceful Russia should and can be part of a secure and prosperous international community. It is our willingness to devote time, knowledge, and experience to achieving a common goal that has contributed to the Foundation’s success.
In 2022, the threat posed to the world by the Putin regime became evident to many. With its nuclear blackmail, this personalist authoritarian regime now endangers not only the neighboring nations but the entire world. In his 22 years in power, Vladimir Putin managed to largely insulate his regime from external challenges and secure his position in power for life. His regime destroyed the opposition and the independent media, subjugated the elites, and instilled fear in the Russian public. He also uses the war to ramp up repression and strengthen control over the country, signaling willingness to escalate internationally as well.
At Free Russia Foundation, we are convinced that an end to this conflict and a lasting peace in the region are only possible if we work together towards this goal. We believe that Ukrainian people will prevail, and the resolute anti-war stance of many Russians gives us hope. We will continue to fight against the Putin regime, following our vision of the future where Russia can become a beacon of peace and prosperity.